Cousin Betty/Section 14

Have you ever observed how in childhood, or at the early stages of social life, we create a model for our own imitation, with our own hands as it were, and often without knowing it? The banker's clerk, for instance, as he enters his master's drawing-room, dreams of possessing such another. If he makes a fortune, it will not be the luxury of the day, twenty years later, that you will find in his house, but the old-fashioned splendor that fascinated him of yore. It is impossible to tell how many absurdities are due to this retrospective jealousy; and in the same way we know nothing of the follies due to the covert rivalry that urges men to copy the type they have set themselves, and exhaust their powers in shining with a reflected light, like the moon.

Crevel was deputy mayor because his predecessor had been; he was Major because he coveted Cesar Birotteau's epaulettes. In the same way, struck by the marvels wrought by Grindot the architect, at the time when Fortune had carried his master to the top of the wheel, Crevel had "never looked at both sides of a crown-piece," to use his own language, when he wanted to "do up" his rooms; he had gone with his purse open and his eyes shut to Grindot, who by this time was quite forgotten. It is impossible to guess how long an extinct reputation may survive, supported by such stale admiration.

So Grindot, for the thousandth time had displayed his white-and-gold drawing-room paneled with crimson damask. The furniture, of rosewood, clumsily carved, as such work is done for the trade, had in the country been the source of just pride in Paris workmanship on the occasion of an industrial exhibition. The candelabra, the fire-dogs, the fender, the chandelier, the clock, were all in the most unmeaning style of scroll-work; the round table, a fixture in the middle of the room, was a mosaic of fragments of Italian and antique marbles, brought from Rome, where these dissected maps are made of mineralogical specimens—for all the world like tailors' patterns—an object of perennial admiration to Crevel's citizen friends. The portraits of the late lamented Madame Crevel, of Crevel himself, of his daughter and his son-in-law, hung on the walls, two and two; they were the work of Pierre Grassou, the favored painter of the bourgeoisie, to whom Crevel owed his ridiculous Byronic attitude. The frames, costing a thousand francs each, were quite in harmony with this coffee-house magnificence, which would have made any true artist shrug his shoulders.

Money never yet missed the smallest opportunity of being stupid. We should have in Paris ten Venices if our retired merchants had had the instinct for fine things characteristic of the Italians. Even in our own day a Milanese merchant could leave five hundred thousand francs to the Duomo, to regild the colossal statue of the Virgin that crowns the edifice. Canova, in his will, desired his brother to build a church costing four million francs, and that brother adds something on his own account. Would a citizen of Paris—and they all, like Rivet, love their Paris in their heart—ever dream of building the spires that are lacking to the towers of Notre-Dame? And only think of the sums that revert to the State in property for which no heirs are found.

All the improvements of Paris might have been completed with the money spent on stucco castings, gilt mouldings, and sham sculpture during the last fifteen years by individuals of the Crevel stamp.

Beyond this drawing-room was a splendid boudoir furnished with tables and cabinets in imitation of Boulle.

The bedroom, smart with chintz, also opened out of the drawing-room. Mahogany in all its glory infested the dining-room, and Swiss views, gorgeously framed, graced the panels. Crevel, who hoped to travel in Switzerland, had set his heart on possessing the scenery in painting till the time should come when he might see it in reality.

So, as will have been seen, Crevel, the Mayor's deputy, of the Legion of Honor and of the National Guard, had faithfully reproduced all the magnificence, even as to furniture, of his luckless predecessor. Under the Restoration, where one had sunk, this other, quite overlooked, had come to the top—not by any strange stroke of fortune, but by the force of circumstance. In revolutions, as in storms at sea, solid treasure goes to the bottom, and light trifles are floated to the surface. Cesar Birotteau, a Royalist, in favor and envied, had been made the mark of bourgeois hostility, while bourgeoisie triumphant found its incarnation in Crevel.

This apartment, at a rent of a thousand crowns, crammed with all the vulgar magnificence that money can buy, occupied the first floor of a fine old house between a courtyard and a garden. Everything was as spick-and-span as the beetles in an entomological case, for Crevel lived very little at home.

This gorgeous residence was the ambitious citizen's legal domicile. His establishment consisted of a woman-cook and a valet; he hired two extra men, and had a dinner sent in by Chevet, whenever he gave a banquet to his political friends, to men he wanted to dazzle or to a family party.

The seat of Crevel's real domesticity, formerly in the Rue Notre-Dame de Lorette, with Mademoiselle Heloise Brisetout, had lately been transferred, as we have seen, to the Rue Chauchat. Every morning the retired merchant—every ex-tradesman is a retired merchant—spent two hours in the Rue des Saussayes to attend to business, and gave the rest of his time to Mademoiselle Zaire, which annoyed Zaire very much. Orosmanes-Crevel had a fixed bargain with Mademoiselle Heloise; she owed him five hundred francs worth of enjoyment every month, and no "bills delivered." He paid separately for his dinner and all extras. This agreement, with certain bonuses, for he made her a good many presents, seemed cheap to the ex-attache of the great singer; and he would say to widowers who were fond of their daughters, that it paid better to job your horses than to have a stable of your own. At the same time, if the reader remembers the speech made to the Baron by the porter at the Rue Chauchat, Crevel did not escape the coachman and the groom.

Crevel, as may be seen, had turned his passionate affection for his daughter to the advantage of his self-indulgence. The immoral aspect of the situation was justified by the highest morality. And then the ex-perfumer derived from this style of living—it was the inevitable, a free-and-easy life, Regence, Pompadour, Marechal de Richelieu, what not—a certain veneer of superiority. Crevel set up for being a man of broad views, a fine gentleman with an air and grace, a liberal man with nothing narrow in his ideas—and all for the small sum of about twelve to fifteen hundred francs a month. This was the result not of hypocritical policy, but of middle-class vanity, though it came to the same in the end.

On the Bourse Crevel was regarded as a man superior to his time, and especially as a man of pleasure, a bon vivant. In this particular Crevel flattered himself that he had overtopped his worthy friend Birotteau by a hundred cubits.

"And is it you?" cried Crevel, flying into a rage as he saw Lisbeth enter the room, "who have plotted this marriage between Mademoiselle Hulot and your young Count, whom you have been bringing up by hand for her?"

"You don't seem best pleased at it?" said Lisbeth, fixing a piercing eye on Crevel. "What interest can you have in hindering my cousin's marriage? For it was you, I am told, who hindered her marrying Monsieur Lebas' son."

"You are a good soul and to be trusted," said Crevel. "Well, then, do you suppose that I will ever forgive Monsieur Hulot for the crime of having robbed me of Josepha—especially when he turned a decent girl, whom I should have married in my old age, into a good-for-nothing slut, a mountebank, an opera singer!—No, no. Never!"

"He is a very good fellow, too, is Monsieur Hulot," said Cousin Betty.

"Amiable, very amiable—too amiable," replied Crevel. "I wish him no harm; but I do wish to have my revenge, and I will have it. It is my one idea."

"And is that desire the reason why you no longer visit Madame Hulot?"

"Possibly."

"Ah, ha! then you were courting my fair cousin?" said Lisbeth, with a smile. "I thought as much."

"And she treated me like a dog!—worse, like a footman; nay, I might say like a political prisoner.—But I will succeed yet," said he, striking his brow with his clenched fist.

"Poor man! It would be dreadful to catch his wife deceiving him after being packed off by his mistress."

"Josepha?" cried Crevel. "Has Josepha thrown him over, packed him off, turned him out neck and crop? Bravo, Josepha, you have avenged me! I will send you a pair of pearls to hang in your ears, my ex-sweetheart!—I knew nothing of it; for after I had seen you, on the day after that when the fair Adeline had shown me the door, I went back to visit the Lebas, at Corbeil, and have but just come back. Heloise played the very devil to get me into the country, and I have found out the purpose of her game; she wanted me out of the way while she gave a house-warming in the Rue Chauchat, with some artists, and players, and writers.—She took me in! But I can forgive her, for Heloise amuses me. She is a Dejazet under a bushel. What a character the hussy is! There is the note I found last evening:

"'DEAR OLD CHAP,—I have pitched my tent in the Rue Chauchat. I have taken the precaution of getting a few friends to clean up the paint. All is well. Come when you please, monsieur; Hagar awaits her Abraham.'

"Heloise will have some news for me, for she has her bohemia at her fingers' end."

"But Monsieur Hulot took the disaster very calmly," said Lisbeth.

"Impossible!" cried Crevel, stopping in a parade as regular as the swing of a pendulum.

"Monsieur Hulot is not as young as he was," Lisbeth remarked significantly.

"I know that," said Crevel, "but in one point we are alike: Hulot cannot do without an attachment. He is capable of going back to his wife. It would be a novelty for him, but an end to my vengeance. You smile, Mademoiselle Fischer—ah! perhaps you know something?"

"I am smiling at your notions," replied Lisbeth. "Yes, my cousin is still handsome enough to inspire a passion. I should certainly fall in love with her if I were a man."

"Cut and come again!" exclaimed Crevel. "You are laughing at me.—The Baron has already found consolation?"

Lisbeth bowed affirmatively.

"He is a lucky man if he can find a second Josepha within twenty-four hours!" said Crevel. "But I am not altogether surprised, for he told me one evening at supper that when he was a young man he always had three mistresses on hand that he might not be left high and dry—the one he was giving over, the one in possession, and the one he was courting for a future emergency. He had some smart little work-woman in reserve, no doubt—in his fish-pond—his Parc-aux-cerfs! He is very Louis XV., is my gentleman. He is in luck to be so handsome!—However, he is ageing; his face shows it.—He has taken up with some little milliner?"

"Dear me, no," replied Lisbeth.

"Oh!" cried Crevel, "what would I not do to hinder him from hanging up his hat! I could not win back Josepha; women of that kind never come back to their first love.—Besides, it is truly said, such a return is not love.—But, Cousin Betty, I would pay down fifty thousand francs—that is to say, I would spend it—to rob that great good-looking fellow of his mistress, and to show him that a Major with a portly stomach and a brain made to become Mayor of Paris, though he is a grandfather, is not to have his mistress tickled away by a poacher without turning the tables."

"My position," said Lisbeth, "compels me to hear everything and know nothing. You may talk to me without fear; I never repeat a word of what any one may choose to tell me. How can you suppose I should ever break that rule of conduct? No one would ever trust me again."

"I know," said Crevel; "you are the very jewel of old maids. Still, come, there are exceptions. Look here, the family have never settled an allowance on you?"

"But I have my pride," said Lisbeth. "I do not choose to be an expense to anybody."

"If you will but help me to my revenge," the tradesman went on, "I will sink ten thousand francs in an annuity for you. Tell me, my fair cousin, tell me who has stepped into Josepha's shoes, and you will have money to pay your rent, your little breakfast in the morning, the good coffee you love so well—you might allow yourself pure Mocha, heh! And a very good thing is pure Mocha!"

"I do not care so much for the ten thousand francs in an annuity, which would bring me nearly five hundred francs a year, as for absolute secrecy," said Lisbeth. "For, you see, my dear Monsieur Crevel, the Baron is very good to me; he is to pay my rent——"

"Oh yes, long may that last! I advise you to trust him," cried Crevel. "Where will he find the money?"

"Ah, that I don't know. At the same time, he is spending more than thirty thousand francs on the rooms he is furnishing for this little lady."

"A lady! What, a woman in society; the rascal, what luck he has! He is the only favorite!"

"A married woman, and quite the lady," Lisbeth affirmed.

"Really and truly?" cried Crevel, opening wide eyes flashing with envy, quite as much as at the magic words quite the lady.

"Yes, really," said Lisbeth. "Clever, a musician, three-and-twenty, a pretty, innocent face, a dazzling white skin, teeth like a puppy's, eyes like stars, a beautiful forehead—and tiny feet, I never saw the like, they are not wider than her stay-busk."

"And ears?" asked Crevel, keenly alive to this catalogue of charms.

"Ears for a model," she replied.

"And small hands?"

"I tell you, in few words, a gem of a woman—and high-minded, and modest, and refined! A beautiful soul, an angel—and with every distinction, for her father was a Marshal of France——"

"A Marshal of France!" shrieked Crevel, positively bounding with excitement. "Good Heavens! by the Holy Piper! By all the joys in Paradise!—The rascal!—I beg your pardon, Cousin, I am going crazy!—I think I would give a hundred thousand francs——"

"I dare say you would, and, I tell you, she is a respectable woman—a woman of virtue. The Baron has forked out handsomely."

"He has not a sou, I tell you."

"There is a husband he has pushed——"

"Where did he push him?" asked Crevel, with a bitter laugh.

"He is promoted to be second in his office—this husband who will oblige, no doubt;—and his name is down for the Cross of the Legion of Honor."

"The Government ought to be judicious and respect those who have the Cross by not flinging it broadcast," said Crevel, with the look of an aggrieved politician. "But what is there about the man—that old bulldog of a Baron?" he went on. "It seems to me that I am quite a match for him," and he struck an attitude as he looked at himself in the glass. "Heloise has told me many a time, at moments when a woman speaks the truth, that I was wonderful."

"Oh," said Lisbeth, "women like big men; they are almost always good-natured; and if I had to decide between you and the Baron, I should choose you. Monsieur Hulot is amusing, handsome, and has a figure; but you, you are substantial, and then—you see—you look an even greater scamp than he does."

"It is incredible how all women, even pious women, take to men who have that about them!" exclaimed Crevel, putting his arm round Lisbeth's waist, he was so jubilant.

"The difficulty does not lie there," said Betty. "You must see that a woman who is getting so many advantages will not be unfaithful to her patron for nothing; and it would cost you more than a hundred odd thousand francs, for our little friend can look forward to seeing her husband at the head of his office within two years' time.—It is poverty that is dragging the poor little angel into that pit."

Crevel was striding up and down the drawing-room in a state of frenzy.

"He must be uncommonly fond of the woman?" he inquired after a pause, while his desires, thus goaded by Lisbeth, rose to a sort of madness.

"You may judge for yourself," replied Lisbeth. "I don't believe he has had that of her," said she, snapping her thumbnail against one of her enormous white teeth, "and he has given her ten thousand francs' worth of presents already."

"What a good joke it would be!" cried Crevel, "if I got to the winning post first!"

"Good heavens! It is too bad of me to be telling you all this tittle-tattle," said Lisbeth, with an air of compunction.

"No.—I mean to put your relations to the blush. To-morrow I shall invest in your name such a sum in five-per-cents as will give you six hundred francs a year; but then you must tell me everything—his Dulcinea's name and residence. To you I will make a clean breast of it.—I never have had a real lady for a mistress, and it is the height of my ambition. Mahomet's houris are nothing in comparison with what I fancy a woman of fashion must be. In short, it is my dream, my mania, and to such a point, that I declare to you the Baroness Hulot to me will never be fifty," said he, unconsciously plagiarizing one of the greatest wits of the last century. "I assure you, my good Lisbeth, I am prepared to sacrifice a hundred, two hundred—Hush! Here are the young people, I see them crossing the courtyard. I shall never have learned anything through you, I give you my word of honor; for I do not want you to lose the Baron's confidence, quite the contrary. He must be amazingly fond of this woman—that old boy."

"He is crazy about her," said Lisbeth. "He could not find forty thousand francs to marry his daughter off, but he has got them somehow for his new passion."

"And do you think that she loves him?"

"At his age!" said the old maid.

"Oh, what an owl I am!" cried Crevel, "when I myself allowed Heloise to keep her artist exactly as Henri IX. allowed Gabrielle her Bellegrade. Alas! old age, old age!—Good-morning, Celestine. How do, my jewel!—And the brat? Ah! here he comes; on my honor, he is beginning to be like me!—Good-day, Hulot—quite well? We shall soon be having another wedding in the family."

Celestine and her husband, as a hint to their father, glanced at the old maid, who audaciously asked, in reply to Crevel:

"Indeed—whose?"

Crevel put on an air of reserve which was meant to convey that he would make up for her indiscretions.

"That of Hortense," he replied; "but it is not yet quite settled. I have just come from the Lebas', and they were talking of Mademoiselle Popinot as a suitable match for their son, the young councillor, for he would like to get the presidency of a provincial court.—Now, come to dinner."